Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 September 2003
Issue No. 654
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
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Humanity, through animal care

In a city where life as an animal can be rough, organisations and individuals take on the burden of caring for beasts

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Cairo is now home to a growing number of independently-run animal shelters

In Midan Ataba a shorthaired, homeless white dog had been laying motionless underneath a car for about 24 hours. She lingered in the pain of broken forelegs and an injured spine. The dog had been hit by a microbus and one witness said that someone dragged her by the tail away from the thoroughfare so the pathetic sight of her body would not disrupt the flow of traffic, Farah Akbar investigates.

Amidst the commotion of city life in Cairo, people often forget about the stray animals that wander the streets, some of which are thrown out of their homes by owners who decide that they no longer want to keep a pet. Some of us also fail to reprimand the owners of working animals who overwork and beat their beasts. Hectic lives, which often include unrelenting and unrewarding work, are reason enough for most of us not to bother caring for animals. Thus the helpless creatures continue to suffer despite the Qur'an and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) which mention the necessity of respecting animals. Egyptian law also stipulates fines and punishments for hurting animals; for example, the law requires that anyone who purposely kills or harshly beats any domesticated animal may be jailed or fined. Such religious and legal obligations are rarely observed or enforced and so it falls upon private organisations and individuals to provide for the care of wayward or abused animals.

The Egyptian branch of the international Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is the oldest animal protection group in Egypt. It was established here over a century ago by British expatriates, though it is currently completely administered by Egyptians. In 1997, the Society successfully contributed to a ban on bullfighting, on the grounds that the sport is brutal and barbarous to animals, as well as in response to a fatwa given by Dr Nasr Farid Wassel, the former mufti of the republic, which declared that the game was un-Islamic. Promoting legal protection is not the only part of the Society's mandate, which includes sheltering animals.

According to Dr Ahmed Samir Salem, the head of the Egyptian branch of the Society, the Society's shelter in Sharabiya currently protects 32 animals, mostly donkeys, out of a total capacity of 150 animals. Salem says that many of the animals are picked up and brought in by government authorities on charges of cruelty before being returned to their owners, who are fined. Selem mentioned that the yearly budget of the shelter, quoted as 17,000 Egyptian pounds, is insufficient. With the Society's sheltering resources thus strained, three compassionate individuals have organised animal care programmes.

In Giza on Sakkara Road stands the only dog shelter in Cairo. Amina Abaza and her husband Raouf Miskriki founded this dog haven three years ago. Known as SPARE, The Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt, the shelter currently holds 32 dogs and is soon to open a cattery. It is run by a mixed paid and volunteer staff; financing comes through a boarding programme that cares for animals while their owners are away, as well as through the personal incomes of Abaza and her partners.

Abaza often distributes Hadith booklets that contain animal-friendly sayings to strangers. Her employment of these religious traditions in promoting care for dogs is evident in the story of Zuzu, a dog under Abaza's care.

Zuzu was found by a woman who saw a man beating the then pup with an iron rod in the Cairo district of Boulak. "A vicious man!" claimed Abaza, sweat trickling down from her face as she told the story and cared for her animals in the intense heat. The man was the owner of a textile shop and apparently did not appreciate the pup standing on the road in front of his store. After caring for the battered pup she returned to that same textile shop to confront the man. "Why did you hit this dog?" she remembered saying to him. "You are such a big man, this is haram!" she told him, suggesting that his behaviour was un-Islamic. She recalled the shocked expression on the man's face at her outburst and handed him a book of Hadith exhorting Muslims to be kind to animals.

She believes that religion is a powerful way of convincing the public about her cause. She refutes the often-voiced notions that dogs are unclean animals in Islam through citation of sayings in her Hadith booklets in which the Prophet Mohamed stressed kind treatment of all animals.

All her animals are 'fixed' and she is in disagreement with the idea that spaying and neutering animals is against Islam, claiming that this act is merciful and prevents suffering.

Barbara Daber opened up her own cat shelter named Animal Friends in Maadi in 2001. The shelter currently holds 57 cats and she is proud to say that last year she had 300 animals adopted into good homes.

Daber says that she has had requests from people to have their cats "married", the owners believing that this will make their cats happier. When she asks them what they will do with the offspring of these feline matrimonies they often have no answer. She thus lamented that people often let their cats go when they become pregnant.

Daber says that she frequently hears comments about why she bothers helping animals instead of using that time and energy on human causes. "When they ask me this I ask them what is it that you have done to help people or animals? They are often silent," she said. She believes that if we treat small creatures with respect, then human beings will respect each other more.

Another animal rescuer, Suzy Tawfik, of Greek and Egyptian descent, used to rescue stray dogs and cats from the street and board them in her parent's home until she found suitable residences for them. When the situation became more than she and her family could cope with, Tawfik and her friend Sandra Gizis decided to open up an animal shelter. The Cairo Animal Inn in Old Maadi is the result of their endeavours. Inside the Inn, Liz, a crippled dog, greets each of us affectionately. Tawfik knows that the probability of Liz ever finding a home is slim, but she is willing to care for Liz even if no one ever adopts her. Not all recipients of Tawfik's aid are as amicable as Liz, however. She has been bitten about 20 times while trying to save dogs yet her resolve to help has not been weakened.

Tawfik has spoken at children's schools about the humane treatment of animals and says that her talks have left a positive impact on the children. She thinks that among the many lessons that a family pet can teach children are responsibility, mercy and compassion.

Dr Osama Safer Sayed, a veterinarian with the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals says that education starting from childhood is the key to changing the attitudes of people towards animals. Sayed also advocates a large spay and neutering programme which would help curb the rising population of Cairo's strays, which he estimates to be in the millions.

Abaza and volunteer members of her staff have also visited schools to discuss with children how treating animals with respect and caring for the environment work hand in hand.

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